The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk District has recommended denying a permit for a 1,500-acre reservoir in Virginia’s King William County that would have flooded more than 400 acres of wetlands and impacted more than 20 miles of streams.
Col. Allan Carroll, engineer for the Corps’ Norfolk District, concluded that the project, sought by the city of Newport News, would degrade wetlands, adversely impact forests and wildlife, and harm the way of life of Native Americans living in the area.
Carroll, citing a study by the Corps, also said that Newport News overstated its future water needs, and concluded “it is not reasonable to build such an environmentally damaging project to satisfy a need that may never materialize.”
Newport News contends the reservoir, which would flood the wooded valley of the Cohoke Creek, a tributary of the Mattaponi River, is needed to ensure the Peninsula region would have an adequate water supply through 2040.
Newport News officials were disappointed but not surprised by Carroll’s recommendation. In 1999, he made a preliminary decision to deny a permit for the project, which would draw up to 75 million gallons of water a day.
“Col. Carroll made it clear that he intended to deny the permit,” said Assistant City Manager Randy Hildebrandt. “We spent the last year-and-a-half dispelling rumors, defending ourselves against the opposition’s allegations and misinformation, and reproving our facts and figures.”
City officials in December released a new projection of a shortage of between 22 million and 27 million gallons of water a day by 2050.
Carroll’s opinion won’t be the last word on the issue. Gov. Jim Gilmore sided with Newport News on the issue, and his endorsement means Carroll’s recommendation must ultimately be sent to the Corps' North Atlantic Division in New York for a final decision.
Before going there, Carroll’s March 20 decision is subject to a 45-day public comment period. After review of those comments, the Corps will issue a final “record of decision” that will result in an additional 30-day comment period.
Newport News quickly posted a “water alert” on its web site, urging supporters to write Carroll, as well as their lawmakers, to support the reservoir plan.
The water alert said Carroll’s conclusions were “beyond comprehension” and cited a 15-year-old Corps study that warned the Peninsula would need additional water in the future. Other options, the city’s water alert said, “are more expensive or piecemeal at best.”
The reservoir was widely opposed by environmental groups, as well as the neighboring Mattaponi Tribe, which has historically used the land for hunting, trapping and gathering, and considers some of the area sacred.
“Col. Carroll and his staff listened to all points of view on this very important issue, sought independent evaluations and then made their decision,” said Kay Slaughter of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“Moreover,” she said, “they withstood intense political pressure from the city to grant the permit. By making this decision, he will protect an invaluable resource, the Mattaponi River, as well as the Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes who first welcomed Europeans to its shores.”
The project would result in the largest loss of wetland permitted by a federal agency within the Bay watershed in years.
“The proposed King William Reservoir would displace not only wetlands, but a complex landscape of wetlands and upland communities,” Carroll said in a letter outlining his decision. “The project would result in the irreversible and irretrievable loss of 403 acres of vegetated wetlands, 34 acres of shallow open water, 21 miles of free-flowing streams, and 1,089 acres of adjacent and interspersed upland habitat.”
Although the Newport News plan would create double the amount of wetlands being lost, Carroll said that action would not fully compensate for the wetland loss. He noted that many efforts to recreate wetlands — especially forested wetlands like many of those that would be destroyed — have “proven less than fully successful.”
Further, he said, the wetlands being lost were a complex, intertwined mosaic of mature forest wetlands and upland communities which form an entire ecosystem. “It is not possible to replicate the ecology and diversity of an entire integrated system of wetlands, streams, ponds and forest in scattered mitigation sites throughout several small watersheds,” he said.
Carroll said some of the replacement wetlands would not be protected in perpetuity. In fact, some of them would be flooded by a future downstream enlargement of the reservoir which Newport News has in its long-range plans.
He also raised concern about the reservoir’s potential impact on several rare species. Carroll also said the project could seriously affect American shad in the Mattaponi River, an important species to the culture of the Mattaponi Tribe, and a target for Bay Program restoration efforts.
Impacts would not be limited to the reservoir, Carroll said. The pipeline that would carry water from the reservoir to Newport News would destroy another 10.4 acres of wetlands, he wrote, and would require clearing additional forests along the right-of-way.
That would fragment the remaining woodlands, resulting in harm to forest-dependent species that remain. The right-of-way would also become an avenue through which exotic and invasive species could move, further degrading wildlife habitat, Carroll wrote.
The reservoir would allow increased boating in the area, Carroll agreed, but he said greater recreational access and related support development would create even more impacts on surrounding forests and tribal lands.
Carroll’s recommendation was the second recent blow to the project. In March, the Virginia Supreme Court — reversing a lower court decision — ruled that reservoir opponents had the right to appeal a state permit for the project that was given to Newport News and other Peninsula localities in 1997.
A lower court had earlier ruled that opponents could not challenge the state action because no injury would occur until the Corps permit — also needed for the project — was issued. The unanimous Supreme Court ruling means a challenge by the Mattaponi Tribe and environmental groups can go ahead now.